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  • January 5, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Back on the Road to Memphis

    by Sam Hutchins

    One of the earlier things Kar Wai had said to me was that in order to get someplace it’s best to go in the opposite direction. Turns out this was true not only for the story he was telling, but in the story of his life as well. In order to scout Memphis we flew to Chicago. I’m not sure if that was the easiest place to meet Darius, who was flying in from Paris, or if there was another reason. Kar Wai seemed very fond of Chinatown in Chicago, maybe that was part of the attraction? Whatever his reason, I had long ago stopped trying to figure him out. He moved like a force of nature and all I could do was try to keep up.

    Merely trying to keep up was a new way of doing the job for me. In my work you need to stay a step ahead of the director. For instance, once we were in the hotel I pored over my maps, reacquainting myself with the immediate area. I determined the best route from the hotel to the highway, and what was the best route to Memphis. Also, the best way to get to any of the locations we had liked on our last trip there. I was mentally rehearsing the various possibilities when we met in the morning, and as usual I was surprised.

    “Let’s go to Chinatown. There is a good place for breakfast there.”

    Very well, it was a trip to the Congee Palace for us. Of course while we were driving I got a call from Darius, who was in a cab at the airport. He insisted I give his driver, a Chicago cabbie, directions from the airport to Chinatown. Needless to say the cabbie knew the route better than I did but spending a few moments on the phone with him at least calmed Darius down. Both he and his four suitcases made it to the restaurant intact, and we all sat over bowls of Congee and caught up with each other.

    If you’ve never had congee, by the way, good for you. If you’ve seen The Matrix, there is a scene where the crew sits around the table eating bowls of wet slop that vaguely resembles mucus. That’s pretty much what congee is. Unlike in The Matrix, however, in real life it is spiced up with whatever manner of offal the chef feels like tossing in that morning. I was glad to be back out scouting with the guys but had not missed some of these meals. Breakfast finished, we hit the medicinal store for a fresh supply of herbs and teas before heading south. I lucked out and found the right highway without too much confusion and we were off.

    We often meandered on local roads, taking the scenic route. Asking around, there seemed to be no interest in seeing anything on the way to Memphis, so I took the highway. It was already late morning so it looked like it was going to be a long haul to make Memphis before the middle of the night. I bore down and drove fast, and was just starting to get back in the groove when Kar Wai snapped out of his usual reverie and pointed out the window.

    “Let’s go there.”

    As usual, I had to pull a pretty ugly move to get to where he wanted to be. Screeching across three lanes and off the exit ramp, I saw what he was interested in.

    “Kar Wai, I think that’s a prison.”

    “Oh. Can we go in?”

    “Sure, we just need to stick up a gas station.”

    Alas, it seems humor is the first thing that gets lost in translation. After an interminably long blank stare I clarified.

    “I doubt we can without having made prior arrangements.”

    “Oh. We should keep going then.”

    Of course I was already off the highway and outside the prison walls. We appeared to be somewhere in Joliet, Illinois. I started meandering around, trying to find our way back onto the highway, when something else caught his eye.

    “Let’s go there.”

    I couldn’t believe it. He had us stop in at a faux-old drive-in restaurant. One of those places meant to evoke the whole American Graffiti/Happy Days carhop experiences. However this place was done about as badly as you could imagine. Horrible posters of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe everywhere, it was possibly the least authentic location in America. Worse, the walls were all gleaming white and basically impossible to shoot decently. Looking around quickly I assumed he would come to his senses. No such luck.

    “Can we take pictures?”

    Sigh.

    “Let me ask.”

    Of course the place was packed, and I had to wait in line for a while before getting to a small window I had to yell through to be heard. The teenage countergirl looked absolutely perplexed at my spiel, and only after much talking, brandishing of business cards and even a little pantomime did she deign to go get the manager. The manager wanted to know exactly what date we wanted to film there and for how long before allowing us to take scouting photos. Exasperated by trying to explain it to her I eventually gave in and simply made up an imaginary date. I then waited for her to amble back to her office to check her calendar.

    “Sorry, hun, but June 14th is no good. That’s when we have a big rally of all the antique cars here. We’d be much too busy to let you have the place.”

    Unbelievable.

    “Okay, then, how about June 15th. That could work for us also.”

    Another slow amble back to her office. This time she had good news.

    “The 15th is good. So go ahead and take your pictures if you want. Maybe you could put some of the cars in your movie.”

    “Thank you very much, ma’am. We’ll consider it.”

    “No problem. But remember, you can’t be here on the 14th.”

    Considering that I had no intention of ever setting foot in the place again in my life, I assented. Easily twenty minutes had passed by the time I got back to the guys and gave them the okay to shoot the place. Darius looked up from the magazine he was reading, scratched his head and looked around.

    “I don’t think we should bother. This place won’t photograph well. The walls are all white.”

    Ugh. It turned out that getting on the highway again was complicated, so we drove down the old Route 66 for a while. We started passing a few old tourist traps, giant plastic statues and the like. They were real Americana, unlike the faux-50’s drive in we had just left. I kept waiting for Kar Wai to react to one of them, but nothing. The more time I spent with the man the less I understood him.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • January 4, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: War & Espionage Essentials

    by John Farr

    John Farr’s declassified dossier of essential war & espionage films.


    The Guns of Navarone (1961)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Crack Allied team commanded by Peck is recruited for a top-secret, near-suicide mission: penetrate a remote fortress on a Nazi-held island and blow up the two enormous long-range guns which prevent the rescue of two thousand British soldiers.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Epic-scale adventure based on Alistair MacLean’s book. The movie boasts terrific action sequences, but is also an engrossing ensemble drama thanks to a sterling screenplay from producer Carl Foreman and terrific turns from a top international cast, including Niven, Quinn, and Quayle.


    The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Collared for importing oil from the Nazi regime, Swedish petrol dealer Erik Erickson (William Holden) is told by British intelligence officer Collins (Hugh Griffith) that his name will be cleared-but only if he engages in a bit of espionage for the Allies. Erickson reluctantly agrees, and is soon branded a traitor for his bogus pro-Nazi business dealings. Secretly, however, Erickson has entered Germany not to build a refinery, but to locate sensitive military information.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on the true story of a blackmailed oil dealer born on American soil, Seaton’s riveting wartime thriller features a knockout performance by Holden, whose burly frame and husky voice is a perfect fit for the role. The radiant Lilli Palmer holds her own as Marianne Mollendorf, the Prussian socialite who assists in providing crucial target information to the Allied forces, as well as offering amorous comfort to Erickson, whose own wife has left him. For a finely crafted, nerve-jarring tale of real-world subterfuge, don’t let “The Counterfeit Traitor” out of sight.


    Where Eagles Dare (1968)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Crack Allied team during World War II is assigned to penetrate a remote Nazi alpine fortress to free a captured General. This intricate mission is headed by British Major Jonathan Smith (Richard Burton), supported by steely American Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Clint Eastwood). Though the plan is inspired, there are factors unknown to the team which will alter the course of events, forcing some improvisation.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Master of adventure Alistair MacLean adapts his own novel to the screen with impressive results. The film is epic in scale and length, yet there are no lulls. Colorful and tense, “Eagles” will engage you straight through to its breathtaking conclusion. A huge box-office success, this helped solidify Eastwood’s position as a bankable star.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • December 21, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Other Pictures in Paris

    by John Farr

    John Farr travels to Paris in search of fine films.


    Ninotchka (1939)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Greta Garbo’s first comedy, “Ninotchka” details what can happen-on a purely human, emotional level-when communism and capitalism collide. Three Russian comrades travel to Paris to sell an invaluable necklace with proceeds to benefit the party. The necklace’s rightful owner, Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) prevails on Count Leon D’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) to restore the necklace to her. The Count blocks the sale and distracts the three Russians with all the capitalistic excesses Paris has to offer. When Moscow notes the delay, they send tough emissary Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to move things along. When the cold but impossibly beautiful agent arrives in Paris and meets the Count, he realizes his mission has become much more challenging, but more interesting as well.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    “Garbo Laughs!” screamed the publicity, and so will you (laugh, not scream). Director Ernst Lubitsch infuses this gossamer “East meets West” romance with his trademark chic style and clever sophistication. Garbo’s transformation from icy harridan to warm, alluring female is a wonder to behold, and Douglas is understated and suitably wry as the Count, never stepping in Garbo’s light too much. With a peerless script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, this is the movie equivalent to champagne, and, of course, caviar. (Trivia note: this picture was remade as a musical for Fred Astaire: 1957′s “Silk Stockings”.


    Last Tango in Paris (1972)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    While apartment-hunting in Paris, sultry 20-year-old Jeanne (Maria Schneider) meets Paul (Marlon Brando), a brooding middle-aged American whose wife has recently committed suicide for reasons he cannot fathom. Within minutes, they make love in the empty flat, a desolate place that becomes their temple of carnality, but with strict rules established by Paul.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Scandalous in 1972 and still unsettling today, Bernardo Bertolucci’s bizarre, fascinating psychodrama depicts sex not as a union of two human beings, but as a reflection of their alienation from each other. While the butter scene is justly famous, this isn’t the only reason “Tango” stays with you. Just watch Brando closely here: at certain moments you catch a glimpse of that fiery young man in the ripped tee-shirt, railing against the world’s injustices, down but never out, and utterly, brilliantly alive. (Trivia note: reportedly, to build a feeling of spontaneity, Brando would improvise his own lines the day before shooting a scene. In many instances, Paul’s memories of childhood are Brando’s.)


    Ronin (1998)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sam (Robert De Niro), a veteran intelligence agent, joins a covert team for a lucrative assignment to seize a suitcase whose mysterious contents are coveted by both the Russian mafia and the IRA. This simple premise develops into countless twists and turns, double- and triple-crosses, along with some car chase sequences worthy of “Bullitt” and “The French Connection”.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Late director John Frankenheimer takes a boilerplate idea and milks it for all its worth, creating a tight, pounding thriller. Casting and performances are solid, but this truly is a director’s picture, with Frankenheimer’s keen sense of pacing and flavorful European locations contributing to an edge-of-your-seat experience.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • December 21, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Holly & Billy Bob’s Oscar Nods

    by John Farr

    John Farr pays tribute to the unlikely Academy successes of Holly Hunter and Billy Bob Thornton.


    The Piano (1993)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), mute since childhood, travels with young, precocious daughter Flora (Paquin) to a remote part of New Zealand to wed icy farmer Stewart (Sam Neill). A ferociously talented pianist, Ada soon agrees to give music lessons to George Baines (Harvey Keitel), an Englishman living among Maoris, in exchange for his housing the piano her husband would not let her keep, and a strange, erotic passion slowly begins to consume them.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Set in the 19th century, Jane Campion’s brilliant period tale “The Piano” was rightly lauded in 1993 for its eccentric storyline and otherworldly, dreamlike atmosphere. Despite never uttering a word, Oscar winner Hunter exudes intelligence and determination as the rebellious Ada, along with a repressed yet combustible sensuality. Anna Paquin is a marvel in her debut, exemplifying the mix of spunk and knowingness that made her a sought-after young star. Visually ravishing and exquisite, “The Piano” is Campion’s visually poetic ode to our unspoken emotions.


    Sling Blade (1996)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Released from an Alabama psychiatric institution 25 years after he murdered his mother and her lover, 37-year-old Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) takes a job as a fix-it man in his old hometown. Despite his violent past, the mildly retarded Childers is a gentle soul who befriends a needy young boy, Frank (Lucas Black), and his widowed mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), who offers to take him in. But Karl’s delicate re-entry into society is disturbed by Linda’s no-good boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), a cruel, abusive drunk who treats him with utter contempt.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Alternately haunting and sweetly affecting, “Sling Blade” is a beautifully accomplished debut by actor-director Billy Bob Thornton, who conceived, wrote, directed and starred in this absorbing drama. (He won an Oscar for his original screenplay.) Thornton’s cathartic, humane portrayal of Childers–a mild-mannered simpleton who quietly protects and cares for Frank and his mom but is haunted by the past–stirs our deepest sympathies. In a nuanced turn, the late John Ritter excels as Linda’s gay friend Vaughan, but the real surprise is country singer Yoakam, whose hateful, hard-drinking Doyle guides the film’s tragic final act.


    A Simple Plan (1998)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After stumbling across the wreckage of a small plane in the woods containing a dead pilot and millions in cash, sensible accountant Hank (Bill Paxton) orders his dim-witted brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and their dissolute pal Lou (Brent Briscoe) to keep the money hidden for a year so as to curb the suspicion of drug dealers who’ll no doubt come looking for their loot. But simple plans, like decent people, have a funny way of going very, very wrong.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    What would you do if you found $4 million, with no one around to claim it? That’s the basic premise of this absorbing Midwestern crime thriller by “Spiderman” director Raimi. “Plan” is as much a study in the poisonous effects of greed as it is a dark-comic twist on the get-rich-quick genre, and Raimi prises splendid acting from his talented cast, especially Thornton (few play the backwoods idiot as well as he) and Fonda, who as Hank’s wife turns from an innocuous, slightly nervous third party into a cold-blooded deviant at the promise of so much lucre. Neo-noir at its best.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • December 17, 2009

    A Scouting Life: A Piece of the Story

    by Sam Hutchins

    I opened up the script with the highest of expectations. To my surprise, it wasn’t a script at all. Instead I had been given a short story. The cultural dissonance was so great with the Chinese that I wasn’t quite sure where the disconnect was. Kar Wai famously does not shoot with scripts. Does he shoot based on short stories? Asking him would be useless as I knew in response all I would get was a smile and silence. So I plunged ahead with my reading assignment.

    It was a very strange story. I recognized the character of the Waitress, who would be played by Norah. This particular segment must be meant to fall roughly in the middle of the film, as it takes place somewhere in the West. Kar Wai must have been working off of our photos of the wide-open desert spaces we had provided, as he had never been there himself. The story concerned Norah waiting tables in an attempt to save enough cash to buy a car. She meets a customer who arrives on foot, pushing a baby carriage full of his belongings. He is very wise and even more mysterious. Ultimately he helps her understand a car is not the important thing, and that she should focus on what is truly important to her. They sleep together, which she regrets. He then disappears in the night having taught her an important lesson. The whole thing was highly existential and dreamlike.

    I hadn’t the slightest idea where to begin with my critique. The dialogue was indeed unnatural, however so was everything else about the tale. Rewriting it to make the characters sound more natural or realistic would contradict the tone and meaning of the story. I wrestled with it for days and ultimately made very minor changes. I primarily worried about grammar, proper tenses and the like, leaving the content alone in all other ways. My advice to any filmmaker would have been to throw the whole story out and start anew. Any filmmaker but Wong Kar Wai, that is. As wrong as the whole thing read on paper in his hands it would most likely work well. My only concern was whether or not his unique style of storytelling would work when set in America.

    I met with Kar Wai and Stephane to discuss my notes. They accepted them gratefully. It was clear that we had a middle chapter to our story but we needed a bridge to get us there.

    “What city made the greatest impact on you?” Kar Wai wanted to know.

    To my great surprise Stephane and I finally agreed on something.

    “Memphis.”

    We pulled our photos of Memphis and reviewed them with Kar Wai. There was rich territory to be mined there. It was a city with plenty of soul. It took very little convincing for Kar Wai to agree. Very well, then, we began making plans to return to Memphis. Darius was in Paris but would meet us on the road. I approached our Production Supervisor and told her we needed to make some travel arrangements.

    “Memphis? Seriously? I though this film was shutting down? I already laid off my staff.”

    I told her that I had been under the same impression, but apparently had been wrong. Patty went in to speak with Kar Wai and returned shortly.

    “He wants me to book you tickets to Chicago.”

    Now it was my turn to be puzzled. I went back to speak to Kar Wai.

    “I thought we were going to Memphis.”

    “We are.”

    “Patty thinks we are going to Chicago.”

    “We are.”

    I stood for a painfully long time awaiting further explanation but got none. I’m pretty sure he forgot I was in his office.

    “So what do I do?” Patty wanted to know.

    “Book us flights to Chicago. I guess we’ll start there and drive to Memphis.”

    I still really hadn’t figured this guy out, but at least working with him was always interesting.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

    • comments (0)
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